Tuesday, June 27, 2017

PA: Charter Transparency Fail

Last night, my district's school board voted to raise taxes.

They did it at a public meeting. I could have attended it easily (they meet just across the street from my home) as could any member of the public. I could also have commented on the budget situation, and I could have based my comments on having looked at the proposed budget, a document that has been available for at least a month. And if I attend all meetings regularly, I know the whole process that has gone into the board decisions, because it's illegal for board members to get together and do board work outside of meetings, and it's illegal for them to hold a meeting without giving public notice (PA law allows them to hold private sidebars on personnel matters).

That's transparency in the function of a public school district.

Meanwhile, in another part of Pennsylvania, one more charter is demonstrating how the opposite of transparency works.

Down Catasauqua way, Innovative Arts charter school has been a source for some concerns. Two teachers from the charter went before the Catasauqua public school board with their concerns.

Special education teacher Ann Tarafas and Spanish teacher Elizabeth Fox, herself hired as a paraprofessional and lacking an emergency permit to teach a foreign language, rehashed their non-compliance stories now accompanied with a total lack of inclusion...

Referring to inadequate special education department staffing (down from five to three), [Special Ed teacher Ann] Tarafas declared, "We're not in compliance with state standards nor are we holding up to the contracts we signed with parents of special ed students on behalf of the school. There is a blatant disregard for what those kids need and that's been exhausting," she remarked.

According to Tarafas, seven of the last eight Innovative hires were not certified teachers. Hearing the full litany of issues, the board president commented, "I don't know what to say I'm speechless."

The Innovative Arts charter was approved by the Catasauqua public school board just last February, and by April of this year, they were already restructuring in response to a drop in enrollment from 283 to 250 (after originally saying 300 students were needed to open). Their new principal is a veteran of NJ KIPP.

Innovative has adopted a budget, too. Only, they did it at an unadvertised meeting that did not allow public comment, and the budget is still not available for viewing. This is three or four shades of illegal, so it's not surprising that the Catasauqua board wants some answers from the Innovative Arts people.

The board called a special meeting for tonight to look into these questions-- and Innovative Arts has indicated they will not attend. "Acting on advice of counsel," IA leaders will not attend the meeting to discuss or explain their situation. And while you may think that it's foolhardy not to give a report to the board that is responsible for authorizing them, but as is the case in many states, Pennsylvania requires something just short of a mountain of paperwork and video proof of intense puppy abuse to rescind a charter.

The specific concerns of IA's lawyer, Daniel Fennick, is that the meeting might involve asking Innovative Arts leaders questions "that should not be addressed in public." For instance, those two whistleblowing teachers? They learned their contracts aren't going to be renewed just a few days after they spoke to the public board. So, yeah, that could be an awkward question. Or "Do you really think that members of a public school board don't know what business can be discussed in public?"-- that might be an awkward question. IA's fall-back excuse is that they've already answered all the questions (though their budget is still unreleased).

So, one more example of how charter schools cut the public out and do their best to avoid accountability. This is not how public education is supposed to work.

1 comment:

  1. 12 years ago, we were unschooling our kindergarten aged son when some parents from the local home-school group told my wife about a new charter school our local district had just chartered that was designed for "individualized learning". But nobody in the community seemed to know about it except the few families whose children "attended" the school. They offered violin rental and lessons for kids who were signed up, which was unheard of in our little town, so my wife went to check it out.
    The "school" was in an elaborately furnished office space in the back of a furniture store rented from the founder's husband, who owned the store. (Wanna guess where the furnishings were bought?) My wife wanted to know more about the school, so she asked for information, but was side-stepped. She asked to see the charter, but was told she could not. She asked to attend a board meeting, but was told she could not. Because of Wisconsin charter school law at the time, they were subject to open-records laws, but the handful of insider families kept stonewalling my wife until she forced their hand by getting the state Department of Public Instruction involved.
    We finally signed our son up to tap into the violin lessons and began a year of enlightenment. The whole operation turned out to be a front for funneling public tax dollars to the home-school operations of 4 or 5 families. The "teacher" was the young 20-something daughter-in-law of the founder, who had never taught and had a El. Ed. degree from a tiny religious school nobody ever heard of. Her entire role was to "provide licensed supervision" of the various moms who were homeschooling their kids using religious home-school curricula purchased with taxpayer dollars.
    About this time, an atheist family who was also unschooling their family moved into town and got to know us. They expressed an interest in the violin lessons and got involved. Unfortunately for the "school", the mom was an attorney and strongly pushed back on their separation of church and state problem. They established a kind of money-laundering scheme of reciprocal donations with the church they all attended and just kept going as usual.
    The atheist family sent their kids to public school and lost interest. My son was expelled from the school at the end of the year because my wife turned in his learning portfolio two days late.
    We received a letter out of the blue from the founder telling us that he had been expelled. We pointed out that, by law, we would have to have been notified and been allowed to bring legal representation to the expulsion hearing. They didn't even know there had to be a hearing. We asked for a copy of the minutes of the meeting at which this expulsion was decided upon. After much hem-hawing around, it turns out that the founder and her daughter had just decided on their own. We asked for an explanation of which school policy had been violated and how we were to have known that the penalty would be expulsion, since there was no mention of this whatsoever in any information we had ever gotten from the "school". About a month later, they drafted a "family handbook" that included specific mention that the penalty for late progress reports "might include penalties up to expulsion, at the discretion of the board". They didn't even bother to back-date it to before my son was expelled, but they applied it to him retroactively.

    How could this go on in a public charter school that was supposed to be overseen by the school district? Guess whose best buddy was the superintendent of schools? Welcome to small-town life.